The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Washington state special election could decide party control

Voters in a swing district just outside Seattle and Tacoma will cast ballots on Nov. 5 in what has become the most expensive legislative race in Washington’s history. And the outcome of the special election could determine whether Republicans gain a lasting foothold in an otherwise very blue state.

The battle for the 26th legislative district, based in Gig Harbor and Bremerton, pits Democratic incumbent Nathan Schlicher against Republican state Rep. Jan Angel. Schlicher was appointed to fill the Senate seat after Derek Kilmer, the previous incumbent, won election to Congress. The winner will serve the final year of Kilmer’s four-year term.

The candidates are a study in contrast. Schlicher, 30, is an emergency room doctor from Gig Harbor and a political neophyte. He graduated from college at 17 and earned a law degree before going to medical school. Angel, a 66-year old Colorado native and trained falconer, has won three terms in the state House. Schlicher labels himself a moderate, while Angel serves as chair of Washington’s chapter of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the group that promotes conservative and business-friendly legislation across the country.

Angel’s career in politics gives her a leg up; Washington state House and Senate members run in identical districts, meaning Angel has run and won district-wide before. In an Aug. 6 primary, Angel bested Schlicher by nine points, 54.6 percent to 45.4 percent. The district, just across Puget Sound from Seattle in the north and Tacoma in the south, is almost evenly divided: President Obama won the seat by fewer than 900 votes, or just over 1 percentage point, in 2012, according to data compiled by the liberal Daily Kos Web site.

Democrats have tried to paint Angel as too conservative for the moderate district, especially on abortion. Angel has gotten herself in hot water, too; a spokesman told the Associated Press last week that Angel wouldn’t be giving interviews until Election Day.

“The other side has tried to label a woman who’s got a remarkable list of accomplishments as radical right, which is hardly the case,” said Mark Schoesler, the Republican Senate leader. “We’ve had a one-vote majority of a bi-party coalition running the Senate for the past year, and we had a lot of bipartisan cooperation in the past. There are liberal special interests that don’t like that.”

Both Republicans and Democrats say their internal surveys show a virtually tied contest heading into the final weeks. And because the state Senate is so closely divided, the stakes are high.

“Given that it’s kind of a swing district, maybe a little more on the Republican side than the Democratic side, it’s going much better than we expected,” said Ed Murray, the Senate Democratic leader. “It’s a key race for the Democrats to be able to take back the Senate for 2014.”

While there are more Democrats in the state Senate, two conservative Democrats sided with Republicans during a fight over the state budget to form the Majority Coalition Caucus, effectively handing control to the GOP. In exchange for caucusing with Republicans, the two Democrats won leadership posts. Sen. Tim Sheldon, long a conservative burr in the Democratic saddle, serves as president pro tempore, while Sen. Rodney Tom, a former Republican who won reelection as a Democrat, is the caucus majority leader.

If Schlicher keeps his seat, Democrats believe they have a good chance to win back control in the 2014 midterm elections. But if Angel wins, Democrats concede they will have a more difficult time winning the two seats they would need to wrestle back control.

Money has poured into the race. Schlicher has raised more than $500,000 for his campaign as of Oct. 15, while Angel has pulled in $664,000. Outside groups ranging from Planned Parenthood to the National Rifle Association have spent a further $1.2 million on the race, about evenly divided between the two candidates. The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee and the Republican State Leadership Committee, the national committees that spend money in state legislative races for both parties, have each spent more than $100,000 in the contest.

Schoesler, the Senate Republican leader, pointed to hundreds of thousands of dollars that environmental activist Thomas Steyer has poured into the race through his political action committee. “A California billionaire wants to buy this seat and rent this caucus,” Schoesler said. “That’s unprecedented by any union, any corporation, any individual.”

Meanwhile, Murray, the Senate Democratic leader, said the budget fight that eventually divided the Democratic caucus and handed control to Republicans was a preview of what would happen if the Republican Angel won the race.

“What’s at risk in my mind is the functioning of state government versus a miniature Washington, D.C.,” he said. “We had our own miniature version of having to close the government” during the budget crisis.

The Senate is the GOP’s only foothold in state government. Democrats control the state House by a wide margin, and no Republican has won the governor’s mansion since John Spellman in 1980, the longest streak of one-party rule in the nation.